All politics is local -- and so are harassing phone calls

"Are you running for something?" I smiled even as I answered, "Gosh, no." Before the call was over, I was reamed for being "scurrilous" and "stupid." Then, the caller flung the ultimate New England insult: "How long have you lived in this town?" Ouch.

Yeah, it was about my previous entry, a pointed comparison between the Bath Schoolhouse Massacre and the PCC's attack on education in Portsmouth. In addition to posting it here, a shorter version appeared in last week's Newport Daily News, and this week's Sakonnet Times. That's where this guy must have read the piece, since it hit the stands today.

I didn't even know they ran the dumb thing until I got a call earlier this afternoon complimenting me. That turned out to be a charming, intelligent person -- who had also written a letter to the editor recently that I thought quite well done -- and we had a fun, civilized chat. (Thank you!)

Tonight, at 8:30, there was this anonymous voice on the phone. "You don't know what it's like to be retired and pay these taxes." I tried to explain that, in fact, I did, since I'd been paying taxes on this house for my mom until she died. "But this is the first year you've paid taxes." Hmm. "How do you know that," I asked, but the cloak of mystery descended: "I know everything," he said.

Know all, tell nothing. Wouldn't say who he was. I tried all the tricks I use in corporate comms: empathy, common ground, looking for win-wins. He did tell me his name was "Harry." And that his property was now valued at 900K, up from 100K when he bought it. And I said, yeah, I can understand why you'd be upset paying taxes on that. But no, no common ground to be had. He hung up on me.

Karen shrugged: "It just proves the point you made." Yeah, I guess so. And while it's appropriate to be called on to defend your ideas, it speaks to the character of the PCC's supporters that they call people up, anonymously, while they're trying to put their kids in bed and harass them.

Truth to tell, it did kind of tickle me. I mean, heck, I've been a pro writer for ten years now -- a Sturgeon Award, shortlisted for the Sidewise, preliminary ballot for the Nebula -- sob -- nobody ever called to tell me I was...stupid...

BTW, "Harry" & co: If you're googling -- Verizon has your number. Don't fuck with me.

Education under attack in Portsmouth

America’s first suicide car bomber wasn’t fighting capitalism, globalization, or even MTV. He blew himself up over property taxes for education.

In the worst act of domestic terrorism prior to Oklahoma City, on May 18, 1927, Andrew Kehoe, a disgruntled school board treasurer, wired up the Bath, Michigan consolidated school with half a ton of dynamite and destroyed a building full of students. Then he drove his car, packed with explosives and shrapnel, into the middle of rescue workers and blew himself up. All told, 38 children and 5 rescuers were killed and dozens more injured.

He was upset because his tax rate was too high, you see.

And although he had tried to do things the right way first – join the school board, run for town office – the sad truth was that not enough people agreed with him. So he resolved to cut his taxes by any means necessary.

On August 19, in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, a bare quorum of 1,284 voters (in a town with a population of nearly 20,000) used a Financial Town Meeting to reduce their property taxes by cutting $1.1 million from the school budget. They based the size of this cut not on any analysis of line items, but rather on the tax rate they sought.

The self-styled tax rebels of the Portsmouth Concerned Citizens (PCC) showed no mercy that morning, refusing every compromise proposed by Save Our Schools (SOS) supporters. Despite differences of less than 100 votes for more reasonable cuts, the PCC saw no evenly divided group and no opportunity for common ground. In a last ditch effort, SOS walked out of the meeting, but failed to break the quorum. Flush with their success, the PCC followers went on to slash an additional 632K from the Town budget, just for good measure.

Their tax rates were too high, you see.

Now, please don’t think I’m just labeling those with whom I disagree “terrorists.” I leave that rhetorical move to the folks who invented “No Child Left Behind” and other unfunded mandates. But I am calling attention to a fundamental “un-sanity” (to quote the late education theorist Neil Postman) in this pair of extremist actions.

In an illuminating letter to the editor in last week’s local paper, the Sakonnet Times, one PCC apologist stated their position succinctly: “I think I have paid my fair share for the past 15 years by not having children in the schools. Did anyone take a survey on how many property owners have no children in the schools?”

Indeed. Should we also take surveys on how many people had no house fires? Or who required no visits from the police department? For all the rhetoric about reining in teacher contracts and protecting seniors on a fixed income, this was just, at base, an attack on public education as an institution.

Neither Andrew Kehoe nor the PCC appear to grasp the basics of the social contract. We fund schools not because we have children in the system, but rather because an educated electorate is essential to democracy. And any rational member of the electorate would agree we should determine funding not by slashing blindly aiming for an arbitrary tax rate, but rather through a reasoned cost-benefit analysis.

Just such a process took place. The duly elected school committee drafted a budget. The Portsmouth Town Council had already worked with the committee to cut $1.2 million before the PCC intervened. Another 1.1 million reduction is not a return to “reasonable territory,” as the PCC claims. The finance subcommittee struggled unsuccessfully at their meeting last week to identify nickel-and-dime reductions, and all the cuts discussed would have direct impact on students.

I believe that the true majority of Portsmouth supports both education and the democratic process. There is real common ground here; we all want fair taxes. But high property tax rates are only a symptom – we need to approach this at the appropriate level, state and federal governments which persist in an antiquated system of education funding. If Idaho can do it, why not Rhode Island?

I also believe the true majority of Portsmouth is more interested in preserving our schools than saving a hundred bucks or so on taxes. I have already donated my “rebate” to Portsmouth United for Education and hope anyone reading this letter might do the same. Not everyone could make it to the tent meeting, but we can still send the PCC a powerful message.

For the sake of Portsmouth’s children – and America’s first democracy – let us not allow a disgruntled minority who could not accomplish their goals through representative government succeed in their attack on our schools.

Rest in peace, Prid E. Vicious

preddie_jan05Our wonderful cat, Preddie, died today after a long battle with chronic kidney failure. He had just reached his 18th birthday, and had been with us since the year after Karen and I were married.

jack_preddie_smHe had always been a wonderful kitty with Jack, who grew up with the big cat.

jack_preddie_073106He survived FIP, radiation therapy for two bouts of thyroid hypertrophy, and lived for a year with progressive kidney failure. Over the last weekend, he seemed to just get tired of the subcutaneous fluids, and the progressive muscle weakness, and we knew that it was time to let him go.

Acela Unplugged -- Appropriate Caution or Calculated Affront?

Amtrak decided to turn off the passenger AC plugs on the high-speed Acela service in the Northeast Corridor this week, citing the potential for riders to accidentally short circuit the outlets. No known injuries, they said, just a precaution.

Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said he was unaware of any injuries caused by the electrical troubles but that the outlets would remain out of service indefinitely "for safety reasons" until the maker of its trains, Montreal-based Bombardier Inc., fixes the problem. [AP story, via Google]

No injuries. Just a precaution. How convenient that the decision strips a key competitive benefit of Acela just as record fuel prices put further pressure on the airline industry.

Next: Food and beverage service suspended "for safety reasons" to prevent passenger choking. And, you don't want to think about what can go horribly wrong in a toilet.

Writer buddy Ken Kristensen makes ToTT

Ken worked with me as a freelance writer at the mumble-mumble corporation a few years back, and I always knew he had a wicked sense of humor in addition to his solid writing chops. He went off to Columbia to study film, from whence he appears in the current New Yorker.

In a piece on a TV comedy master class run as an intense, show development boiler room, Talk of the Town quotes former Seinfeld-writer-professor describing Ken with the gruff admiration reserved for sitcom auteurs: "This is the future of bad comedy writing, right here. These guys work fast; they can make it stink in a week.”

Trust me, that's s a major compliment. Yay, Ken.

"Keyboard Practice" named Sturgeon Award Finalist

Just found out that my novelette is a finalist for this year's Theodore Sturgeon Award. Totally awesome news, and a weird flashback. It was ten years ago that my first published story, "Jigoku no mokushiroku," was a finalist and ended up winning the Sturgeon.

Check out the list of this year's Sturgeon finalists.

Thanks, Gordon, for the heads-up!

Drupal 4.7 released, or, content-free pages explained

And you may have noticed the site was down all day yesterday. So excited about the final release of Drupal 4.7 that I immediately installed it. Patting myself on the back for the restraint to sit out the RC cycle and wait for the RTM code. Whoops.

Yes, I did do all my backups before moving to the new version, and a good thing. There was a funky interaction between the database upgrade script and my site, and I lost the whole UI. Did a day's worth of troubleshooting (in the twenty-minute blocks between tasks on a full work day) and have finally given up and backlevelled to my old site.

Expect to see 4.7 in action Real Soon Now.

Coming soon -- Drupal 4.7, and downtime explained...

I'm a fundamentally lazy guy -- and, yes, that is a virtue in a programmer ;) -- so I while I make content updates pretty regularly, I tend to let the code base...uh...stagnate.

But Drupal, the awesome open-source CMS that powers this site, is nearing release of the next version, 4.7. I've been playing with the betas and release candidates, and it is one sweet upgrade. I'm almost tempted take the plunge and go with RC3, but the final product should be out within weeks.

So the vanilla blue theme on the site? I was using such an old theme that the most recent version of php broke it (Thanks, Chris, for letting me know!), so I'll accept the default for a couple weeks. If you're reading this in RSS, you'll never know what you're not missing. But do check out Drupal. It rocks.

RIP William Sloane Coffin -- update

My father-in-law studied with him at Yale, and every story he tells about Coffin shows a person who was just as profoundly human and caring in everyday life as he was about the big issues he tackled.

It's a sad day. His voice and vision will be deeply missed.

Obit in the Washington Post.

Update from my father-in-law, with a favorite story from Coffin's book Letters to A Young Doubter:
Bill had been meeting with a very conservative group at Yale. He always said "I think it's more important to be known by the integrity of your love than by the purity of your doctrine," but they didn't agree.

After a few discussions which went nowhere (Bill wasn't about to be converted and they would settle for nothing less) the leader of the Campus Crusade said, "Bill, you know that you will always be on our prayer list."

And Bill asked, "How close is your prayer list to your shit list?"

Are we really planning to nuke Iran?

Can the US really be ready to cede what's left of our moral high ground? Read Hersh's New Yorker piece, The Iran Plans.

If you think this a monumentally bad idea, let your representatives in Congress know, sign the petition at, and generate some noise. Hersh makes the point that because Bush is listening to his captive policy-strategy echo chamber, all he's hearing is the same kind of advice that got us into Iraq.

There is no way understand how truly savage an atomic attack is, really. The idea that this Administration would consider first strike, even against limited, military targets, is obscene. Visit the Hiroshima Peace Museum to see what actually a-bombing a city looks like, or, if you only have time for one image, take a look at Shin's Tricycle.